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Jessica Lange’s Latest Life

The star of ‘Frances’ and ‘Tootsie’ on overcoming ‘King Kong,’ her affair with Baryshnikov and her dream to leave the big screen

Jessica Lange, American Film Institute, John HustonJessica Lange, American Film Institute, John Huston

Jessica Lange during American Film Institute Gala Tribute to John Huston at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on March 3rd, 1983.

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

1. Jessica Lange has this goal

“I’ll tell you something,” Jessica Lange is saying. “I wouldn’t for anything in the world go through my life again. I wouldn’t. It’s been real painful. I mean even with all the joy, it’s been–God–painful.”

It is noon, a brisk Saturday morning, the western fringes of Greenwich Village, a stinky greasy spoon where the oily waiters don’t like it if you only order coffee. Two weeks without caffeine for Jessie, but now it’s pumping through her, the ash-blond curls almost straightening out. Her lithe body, clad in black leather pants and a black blazer, seems to be rising, levitating, in an inexorable rush toward the ceiling. A busboy approaches and warns that either you ask for food or you’re gone. But Jessie is ascendant, the words are percolating.

“I always go through big cycles,” her voice says from many angles; she shifts left, then right, then down, then up again. “I never just slide through anything. I explore everything to the fullest, whether good or bad.”

The coffee is fueling the synapses. “Now, I feel a whole period of my life coming to a close and something else opening up,” she continues. “I don’t know what it is, but I sense it’s going to take me into the realm of – this will sound corny – self-examination.”

Here it is, the brink of a new cycle. This one will last nine years, Jessie has been advised, until she is forty-two. And whatever happens in 1983 will set the irrevocable path. It is a propitious time, then, for assessing, for negotiating the guardrail at life’s edge with an arabesque that finishes in a determined direction. A bad time for mistakes.

“If I look back on the fifteen years since I left high school,” she says, “I can see perhaps five distinct lives of mine.”

And the continuity between these lives?

“Real shitty.”

She went on: “You know, I’ve always had this sensation that I’ve no connection to the person I was yesterday. It’s not so bad now, but there was a period of my life when I didn’t even feel connected to the person I was ten minutes ago. It was kind of frightening at one point – kind of free floating in the present with no tentacles touching down anywhere.”

She can’t stop now, this woman of secrets trying to explain. Start the new phase. Exorcise the old. Yet it couldn’t have been so awful, could it? This is a survivor, a victor, the beautiful mother of a beautiful child.

It is not enough. Jessie wants it all. To be the best, knowing full well the impossibility of superlatives. The craving of perfection. Hers. The World’s.

“A lot of the lifestyle I’ve engaged in during the past is going to have to be eliminated,” she admonishes. The thoughts come quickly, quietly, barely audible amid the cries for cheeseburgers and tuna. The coffee is done. “I’ve always put myself, my desires, first. And I don’t think it’s the way the human spirit was meant to exist. Really, what I’m looking for is to live in some kind of state of grace.”

The waiter comes over. “If you’re not having lunch,” he orders, “you’ve got to leave.”

We walk down Bleecker Street to a diner with legendary blueberry pancakes. It is one of Jessie’s favorites; she used to go there often, years ago when she still didn’t know what she’d do for life or livelihood. The tiny place is filled with the earthy smells of bacon and grits, the clatter of conversation.

“Some of the people I used to come here with,” she says, “are dead now.”

2. Some important things to remember about Jessica Lange

She was born in rural Minnesota. There wasn’t a great deal to do there.

There might be some charm to this. But visions of Jessie, her two older sisters, her kid brother and her folks living off the land in some idyllic farmhouse are off the mark. The Langes moved eighteen times before Jessie hit the highway solo.

Her father was a salesman, the traveling kind. Also a coach, a dreamer, a teacher, a drifter, frustrated over his lot in life. Al Lange had a temper and also a gypsy bone. When his teenage Jessie hopped a freight train one spring, he appreciated the gesture. He thinks it’s fine she became an actress – since that’s what she wants – but just this past Christmas, with Frances and Tootsie hauling in the crowds, Al suggested Jessie go back to college for a law degree, just in case.

He wanted, they say, to be a lawyer. Dorothy, his wife, wanted to dance. Al says Jessie’s two-year-old baby, Alexandra, whose father is Mikhail Baryshnikov, favors her grandmother.

Al and Dorothy live in Nickerson, which isn’t really a town, just a dot in the wild not far from Lake Superior and only seven miles from Jessie’s log cabin in Holyoke. Jessie owns 120 acres, her parents have forty.

She had been desperate, crazy, ravenous to get out of these parts when she was young. Now, she returns all the time. The escape is so complete, she can visit this adolescent prison with nostalgia and love. You peer in Jessie’s yearbook from Cloquet High School, where her intelligent, open face pops out like a beacon from the faces of the rifle-team stars, typing whizzes and home-ec queens, and you wonder how she got out at all. But there she grins, an A student, National Honor Society, star of the senior-class production of Rebel without a Cause – a production, incidentally, canceled when someone in school got murdered. (It’s no surprise that Wisconsin Death Trip figures prominently in Jessie’s list of remembered books today.)

You get the idea, from the photos of the big dance, that Jessie had one more side than her peers. She was the decoration chairman, the Kiwanis club was the sponsor, and the theme was “Psychedelic.” Now this was 1967 in Cloquet, Minnesota, and Jessie painted some pretty odd stuff for that segment of the universe. After all, she’d been one of the first kids there to know about Dylan. And when you think of it, he came from Minnesota, too.

Paco Grande did not. When Jessie left for Minneapolis, for her art scholarship at the university, she met him and never looked back. The country girl and the displaced Spaniard-photographer ran, to Europe and around the U.S. And eventually, in 1970, they wed.

“With my husband, when we were together during the early years, the really strong years, we were inseparable,” Jessie remembers one night over a double Stolichnaya and lime. “We lived, literally, in this truck together, and we’d go for days without speaking to anybody else except maybe a gas-station attendant when we wanted to fill up. Otherwise, it was just the two of us, kind of launched in space, traveling around America in this old truck. And the first time we landed was in Marin County to see my sister Jane. She says it was as if two people had ceased to exist, and there was a new entity.

“That stuff is the essence of life. If you can understand it, it should never go bad or ever get destroyed. But it always does. I guess if I understood it, it would be easier to hold on to.”

Paco was obsessed with sex, death and opera. Jessie had her obsessions, too. There is always the Great World Out There obsession, and she’s been through ones about painting, mime, the occult and, of late, acting, too.

Jessie’s obsessions, though, tend to pass. Go in cycles. She works diligently at them, achieves an ease and fullness, then moves on. Such was the obsession with Paco, it seems, and the obsession died long before the marriage ended just a couple of years ago. More than a decade of separation had ensued, distances of the most massive kind, first transversed by a flight to Paris in 1971.

She and Paco had been there in May 1968. It was Danny the Red then; it was the revolution. When they departed, Jessie vowed to return. And when she kept her pledge, there was a suitcase in her hand, a few bucks in her purse and an appointment to meet Etienne DeCroux, the master of mime. This is not exactly akin to an amateur pianist’s showing up at Vladimir Horowitz’ doorstep, but then again, it’s not so different, either. But Jessie has conviction, and things have come to her, generally, with unusual smoothness. She has a faith that strongly denies the possibility of failure. So much so, that she is shocked, completely caught off guard, if any rudeness comes her way. So there was every expectation, perhaps certainty, that Paris would be a success.

To a point, it was. Two years of garret living, great natural skills at her craft, some months with the Opéra Comique. “I knew immediately I was good,” she says, and it isn’t an immodest statement. “It came very, very easily. And I find that the easier it comes, the faster I lose interest.”

The next cycle. There was no audience for mime, anyway. Even on the Parisian streets. The French, she found, were nauseatingly decadent. The revolution was now back in the States. Nixon was on the ropes, and Jessie got on a plane. It sounds logical, but was actually abrupt. She is an abrupt woman. The slow burner with the violent vent. When she left the Seine, she left a furnished apartment.

“I think the majority of people settle,” she says with disgust. “They settle in relationships, in their jobs, in their lives. They just settle. And that’s something – and I’m not saying it’s a positive thing – but something I’ve never been able to do. It’s been the source of a lot of pain. Because I find myself wrenching myself out of situations and going back out into my own orbit.”

3. The official career: a quick history, without tears

Before King Kong Ruined Jessica Lange’s career in 1976, there had been no career to ruin.

Back from the continent. Waitress jobs in Manhattan. Minor modeling. A screen test for a big Dino De Laurentiis movie spectacular. She passes, and the cameras and the publicity machine start rolling. Hollywood has itself another blond bimbo, a chump for the chimp. Wags wonder whom she has slept with to get the plum part. Rumors encompass long lists of names, most of which belong to people Jessie has never met. It’s a good laugh now, not very funny then.

Hundreds of interviews are arranged. Quotes are manufactured, fed to the press. A particular favorite comes in Newsweek, on Kong’s death scene. “Tears came to my eyes,” it says Jessie said. “It is sad, because I do believe in the story.”

When she goes to the screening, she covers her eyes with her hands. It is two lonely years before more work. There is money from Kong to buy a rural Wisconsin homestead. Also a place in L.A., which she has the sense to vacate when the drone of questions about “What are you doing next?” ricochet and threaten sanity. There is Bob Fosse. He falls in love, then casts Jessie as a one-woman Greek chorus in All That Jazz. No one really notices. Next:

Jessie: Did you ever see How to Beat the High Cost of Living?

Me: No. Jessie: You’ll live.

Okay, just as you’re ready to trot out the violins, just when Jessie is drinking too much in a North Carolina motel, suffering through a play called Angel on my Shoulder, for which the producers plaster the area with ads reminding the public of the star’s gorilla past, director Bob Rafelson drops in. He casts her in his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. There’s hot chemistry onscreen between her and Jack Nicholson, but people aren’t ignited. The good news is the critics. They go from saying how pretty Jessica Lange looks to commending favorably on her acting. It is a breakthrough.

Postman’s editor, Graeme Clifford, is chosen to direct Frances. It’s been years in the talking stage, this real-life Hollywood tragedy that half the under-forty leading ladies in the Academy directory feel compelled to star in. There is a contemporary resonance in the destructive powers of the movie business–not to mention the shot at being in every scene for two hours nonstop – which has attracted the heavies.

Jessie fools them all. Clifford gives her the part, and how she runs with it. A major motion-picture performance by someone once written off as professionally dead. No fluke, either. She shoots the female comedy lead in Tootsie immediately afterward, and everyone wonders out loud whether there is a part Jessie can’t do.

Meanwhile, Dino De Laurentiis opens a fancy food store on New York City’s trendy Columbus Avenue. This might be the Jessica Lange decade.

4. Jessica Lange thickens the plot

“I was talking with my accountant the other day,” Jessie was saying with a light grin. We’d just finished a nouvelle Japanese meal at a chic brownstone restaurant, and Jessie was drawing on the pink linen tablecloth, copying the lettering on a pack of Camels. She is quite calm, graciously animated in the unaffected way that makes her presence so appealing. It is the shy warmth of someone who can grant the impression of intimacy without ever giving herself away. Her fair skin, usually the color of December moonlight, is slightly tinted, owing to the damp weather and two just-consumed bottles of fine white Bordeaux. The other day, the New York Times proclaimed her to be, along with Meryl Streep, one of the two most sought-after properties in Hollywood. With Streep pregnant, the job opportunities for Jessie are ripe. Especially with all the speculation that she’ll be the first performer in forty years to garner two Oscar nominations in a single year. And Jessie – who earned $350,000 for Tootsie and is showing a healthy interest in Frances‘ revenues with her two and a half percent of the producer’s gross–is discussing retirement.

“I was talking to my accountant the other day, and I asked him: ‘What do I have to do so that I don’t have to work anymore?’ Well,” she relates, “he did some calculations and got back to me. He wanted to know whether I could manage on $80,000 a year. ‘Can I?’ I said. ‘I could support my whole family on that.'”

Manipulating numbers to hit an eighty grand annual stipend is not that easy, at least not yet. Jessie is still only land rich: there’s the Holyoke cabin, the Wisconsin place, a good hunk of fairly inaccessible countryside in Taos, New Mexico. That’s where, along with Uncle Sam, the cash has gone; when her divorce from Paco was finalized a year ago, the court found Jessica Lange had exactly $3479 in the bank. She is not a spendthrift, the frugal lessons of the northern Midwest deeply embedded into the striking bone structure of her Finnish ancestry. In the Lange family’s chest of traditions, it’s not surprising that the following tale is oft recalled: that Jessie, who didn’t speak until age three, finally broke her silence in a neighborhood candy store by walking up to the cash register and declaring: “Charge it.”

So why these murmurings of chucking it, throwing in the makeup towel and heading back to the hills for good? It is an alien concept, or should be, it seems, to a thirty-three-year-old actress approaching peak earning power, explosive popularity and overdue fame. But Jessie is serious: since filming Tootsie and Frances, she hasn’t accepted any of the umpteen offers flowing to her or Lou Pitt, her agent at International Creative Management.

“I’m just not going to do this for very long,” she says of her acting career. “I really don’t think I will.”

There are many reasons to believe these are more than the facile sentiments of a poseur. That Jessica Lange is not enamored of Hollywood is veritably axiomatic. This is no glitzy girl, no photo-opportunity party hound, but someone smarter than most folks in the business and smart enough to know it. And though she’s rented a house in Beverly Hills, it seems little more than a transient stop in a life of short stays.

“There’s a very low standard of morals in Hollywood,” Jessie says. “There are a lot of people with very little conscience. I’d say seventy percent of the business is illusion. No, delusion. People are deluded in what’s important, in values. False ideas are imposed on your life that really have nothing to do with any kind of universal truth.”

Well stated perhaps, but not exactly a unique opinion. Yet having been mightily exploited throughout the King Kong fiasco, and having ripped out a piece of her soul to impersonate Frances Farmer, the archetypal back-lot victim, Jessie can’t be blamed for her views.

But most people don’t enjoy being at the office, either. And artists are regularly committing masterworks for patrons they deeply detest. So Jessie’s reticence must fall deeper, and it does. There is an ambivalence about her craft, an occasional lack of obsession about the work, what it does and doesn’t quite mean to her.

“I’ve never found a natural ease in making movies,” she explains. “It has no harmonious life of its own. The work you do in a film – either you try to forget you’re in an inherently jarring situation, or you use that unease in your performance. Maybe a harmonious situation doesn’t exist anywhere, but I think private artists – painters or musicians – can find it within.”

Jessie has endured her painter cycle, all the way from her minimalist college work to larger canvases done in her one-time studio on the Bowery. It is likely not coincidental that one afternoon she mentions she’d relish the thought of returning to school to study, right, music. With a passion, undoubtedly. Jessie’s requisite emotion, one that’s missing at times.

“It isn’t that I’m not obsessed with acting–actually, I like it more now than I ever have, it has engaged me. Just a couple of weeks ago, for the first time since Frances, I had this overwhelming desire to work again. The idea of playing a part makes me thirsty. Maybe it’s just that my motivation has been on hold.” Still, “I feel a sense of laziness,” she says. “Well, not laziness, really, but resting up. I don’t feel engaged in anything right now; maybe it’s just a gathering up of energy. I expended so much energy in the past two years. It could be the system’s on automatic pilot, coasting, giving me a break.”

But in the next breath, she might suggest that maybe, just maybe, the acting drive today comes simply from not having “an alternative plan yet.” There are differing forces at work here, and Jessie is the first to acknowledge an unpeaceful coexistence.

“There are real basic contradictions in my wants,” she says, “in how I respond to things. There isn’t a thread of consistency in my life. That’s what we were talking about before, that sensation of never being connected to the person who was here yesterday.”

And today? Well, Jessie is interested in making a movie about Dorothy Day, the Catholic activist. Or maybe the fictional rise of a woman politician. Or, well, if she had her way, Beethoven’s Fidelio.

She could play Leonora in this opera, in which the strong woman disguises herself as a man to save her lover from prison. The flip side of Tootsie. She knows full well this is not the sort of project Hollywood cuddles up to, which is another problem with the picture business, but now she’s laughing about it, an imaginary conversation out loud:

“Listen, Lou,” she says to her agent. “You familiar with Fidelio? What do you think of the story, huh? It’s got love, it’s got passion, it’s got prison, it’s got persecution, it’s got murder – all the elements…. What’s that, Lou? Can’t get Beethoven? Okay. Listen then. What do you think of Carmen?…”

The mood has swung back to laughter, the pendulum shifts to the sillier side of life. As we leave the restaurant, Jessie borrows a copy of Variety and checks the weekend gross on Frances.

5. Jessica Lange tells a story

“I used to lie as a child,” Jessica begins.

We’ve been talking about anger, how she despises liars and people who’ll betray you. How betrayal, personal betrayal by people she just won’t name, is a theme of her life. How there are no acts of betrayal on her conscience, but there is this:

“Our family was pretty much on the line,” she says. “We never had much money. But the neighbors–well, there were three girls in the family, and they had so many toys, boxes and boxes of things for their dollhouses that they never used. I was so covetous. And I remember once being in their house, and I needed things for my dollhouse: pots, pans, chairs, God knows what. So I took some of these things out of their playbox because I thought they wouldn’t miss them–and they didn’t.

“But I also made no effort to hide them. So at one point, their father came over to talk with me about something. I don’t know whether he knew or not. But anyway, I started to tell him about a dog I had bought and given someone. I created this whole fantasy. I must have been seven years old, and I looked this man straight in the eye and began telling him these things I completely made up.

“And he said, ‘Where’d you get the dog?’

“‘At the pet store outside of town.’

“‘There’s no pet store there.’

“‘Well, they just moved it. I was there last week, and even as I was going to buy the puppy, they were moving it; I had to jump over this huge ditch just to get there….’

“I remember telling him all this, in lavish detail, feeling absolutely no sense of remorse, not flinching. All the time realizing I was lying. And you know, there was no guilt at all.”

Now this is the sort of stuff that kids do all the time. Not necessarily the thievery, but the invention of new lives and tales, the manufacturing of instant myth. And Jessie excelled.

She played by herself, stuck to herself, a willful child, toddling about the beautiful dollhouse her mother made her, an imaginary universe that insulated her from the boredom of the North and the raised voices of her parents.

“I just know that how I survived those family years was my ability to withdraw and live in a dream world,” she says, sipping some Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s not that it was horrendous, it was my way of removing myself.” Just, perhaps, as she’s been capable of vacating situations abruptly.

So Jessie built a fence around herself, staying away from the familial feuds, simply walking away from unpleasantries. Always trying to bridge the gap between what she wanted and what she got.

“One of the first things you come in contact with as a child, in terms of real relationships, is fairy tales,” she remembers. “If you’re beautiful, you meet some prince and go live in some kingdom on a hilltop swathed in roses and spend the rest of your life happily ever after. In the meantime, there you are, growing up with a mother and father who are at each other’s throats. So what have you got? You know your family is fucked up, and this isn’t the way you’re supposed to be living. But from there, substituting for these fairy tales as you get a little older, are these Gothic romances.”

Ah, the Gothic-romance phase. Jessie, age eleven, poring over Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights one long hot summer, reading them countless times, obsessed with the obsessions within. It was still another world, but it was more like real life.

“I think from Heathcliff and Rhett Butler I got a tainted image of what male-female relationships are supposed to be,” she continues. “Therefore, I’m always looking for these violent, life-and-death relationships. A character like Heathcliff is obsessed to death. And that’s what I always thought it should be – a relationship so obsessive that it should be worth dying for.” Or, for that matter, a husband obsessed with sex, death and opera worth leaving Minnesota for and trucking across America with, no strings, no fairy tales.

But there would be more immediate outlets. The Lange cousins would gather for big get-togethers, and the younger ones would put on their own little shows. Gone With the Wind was the big favorite, and guess who always managed to play Scarlett? And guess who told her sister that one day, one day, she’d get away, go somewhere in Europe and meet famous people? Could it also have been Jessie who entered into cutting arguments with her siblings that were described by all concerned as character assassination?

It was the Dave Dudley fight. Jessie and her sister Jane couldn’t quite agree on the merits of one of Dudley’s country & western tunes. Jessie didn’t like it, and she claimed Jane did – which couldn’t have been terribly hip, since the song was pretty drippy. They tore each other apart, each thinking the other had gotten the best of it.

“The difference between us was that I would get real emotional, but Jessie would stay very clear,” says Jane, who is close to her sister today. “She could target right in on your sensitive area and nail you.”

For Jessie, the bouts were typical of a problem she’s still grappling with today. Maybe because she turned off her mind to battles in her household, maybe because she felt things so differently that she thought she didn’t feel them at all, maybe… well, let her explain.

“I wonder why I’m so fearful, so afraid of my own temper. I want to avoid my own anger if I possibly can. The anger is so monumental that it would sever connections – and it has. It has actually severed relationships.

“I’ve always been made to feel somewhat emotionally retarded,” she says. She laughs at her expression, but the joke has a nasty ring. “That somehow, I’m miles behind the rest of humanity, and they seem to understand the workings of the human spirit better than I do. And only recently have I learned this is bullshit ninety percent of the times. These people don’t know jackshit more than I do. But they’d have this real pompous air, an ability to impose their superiority, to make me feel like a crass underling. It puts you in a most submissive position. Actually, I don’t mean emotionally retarded, I mean emotionally inferior. But it’s getting harder for people to do that to me now.”

6. Jessica Lange keeps secrets

If some of what she says sounds vague, that’s because it is. Jessica Lange has spent too many years as fodder for the columnists, many of whom she would dearly love to strangle. She will talk about her career, her life, her family, but virtually never about her loves. She holds these close, they are no one’s business, and except for her, who cares?

But we know things, if only through the way stories travel, if only because paparazzi make a living shooting stars. And so we get to real life, what we understand, and what we shouldn’t want to know.

Jessie met Mischa Baryshnikov soon after she finished King Kong. They have now been together, on and off, and off and on, for seven years. It has been a private romance with a very public child. A relationship that has filled newspaper stories with the most unflattering sort of appraisals. Most of them–the subtexts anyway–go like this: why is the most famous dancer in the world, the toast of kings and critics, going out with a girl like that? When Jessie is interviewed, within ten minutes, the questioner floats the name Mischa into the air; Jessie rarely answers. It is a matter of chauvinism, in the least, that he is rarely so subjected. It falls to her.

People miss the point, it seems. There is a logic to their affair, more logic, anyway, than there is to most. There she was, a woman who had traveled, in a sense, a million miles from her roots, Hollywood being as far from Cloquet High School as Cloquet High School is from Mars. And there he was, having just finished his movie debut in The Turning Point, two years a defector from Russia, a million miles from Leningrad and a lifetime removed from his Latvian youth. Two foreigners suddenly fawned upon in strange lands. It wasn’t exactly Wuthering Heights, but you’ve got to admit it was romantic.

“Jessie didn’t know anything about me or my career,” Mischa says one evening. “And I didn’t know anything about her. We just liked each other. It was nonartistic, the relationship, it was just this beautiful young lady in front of me…. And it was lucky that she spoke French, since I didn’t really speak any English then.”

And Jessie was lucky he spoke French? “Yes,” Baryshnikov says. “We were lucky.”

The beginnings sound positively, well, out of a fairy tale. “When I first met Mischa,” Jessie said earlier, “there was something so familiar about him that he felt like a brother. Physically, emotionally, everything. Even though there was a tremendous area that was unspoken – because of language problems – it wasn’t one of those relationships where you meet someone and there’s an immediate history. It wasn’t even something I understood. That was the immediate response. I don’t know if I feel that way now – it’s seven years down the road, it has a history of its own.”

Mischa continues. “I was very impressed with her independent way of dealing with problems, people and happiness. Especially her independence. And also, her ironic attitude to what people have and what people can have in this life. And we are, till now, sharing this point of view.

“Jessie,” he adds, “definitely has guts.”

It has not been an easy pairing. These are two driven individuals, in different places at different times, sometimes reading about each other’s exploits through halftruths and outright falsities in the newspapers. They would travel to one of his galas in Europe, go to a ball, and Jessie would overhear the whispers: who’s that girl with Mischa?They always knew who he was. Each jete would ennoble him, it seemed, and she was filming How to Beat the High Cost of Living….

And then there was the baby. Alexandra (whom they call Shura) was conceived soon after Jessie completed filming Postman. It wasn’t planned, but Jessie once said the possibility of postponing the creation of life because there was a tempting project afoot was anathema. The child, a blond angel, stays largely with her mother. A great deal of time in the Holyoke cabin, where Jessie puts Tristan und Isolde on the turntable and tries to explain the story to Shura in once-upon-a-time terms. The mother who distrusts fairy tales is teaching them to her child.

Meanwhile, Mischa has taken Shura to rehearsals at the American Ballet Theater, which he runs. “She started to dance,” he says. “She was so excited.” So, he wants to make her a dancer? “God forbid,” he proclaims. “She’ll decide for herself.”

Jessie plans to start her on violin lessons this year. The Japanese Suzuki method, geared toward very young children. She has information, from “advisers,” that Shura could be a great fiddler. Mischa thinks it’s a bit premature.

One guesses that the resolution to this minor dispute rests with where Shura resides. With Jessie? With Mischa? With both of them?

Lately, they stayed together at Mischa’s New York apartment. They had been separated for some time and did the kinds of things nice New York couples do: dined together in the Village, strolled through the quiet West Side streets, caught On Golden Pond together on HBO. It didn’t last terribly long, though. Soon, Mischa hit the road for a ballet tour, and Jessie was back in California with Shura, keeping in touch by phone.

Relationships reach stages of profound uncertainty. This is, after all, the start of a new cycle in Jessie’s life. What happens this year determines the next nine.

What’s going on with her and Mischa?

“God,” Jessie says. “I wish I knew.” For his part, Mischa finds Jessie far more confident than ever and praises her art to the skies. He does, however, sound a tad bemused by her current ambivalences. He attributes a lot of it to her most recent job. “I think this Frances Farmer period will just pass,” he says. “I think she’s playing this role for a little too long. It would be real stupid of her not to work a lot now. But I think she will take big chances, in terms of her career and in her life. She won’t listen to anybody, anyway; she will do what she wants to do.”

But what about her attitude? After all, she says she lacks ambition. “It’s bullshit,” Mischa laughs. “Listen, don’t worry about her. She’ll figure it out. And we’ll be surprised.”

7. Jessica Lange knows what she wants

We are on the dock at the South Street Seaport, and the wind is whipping across the East River. Jessie is bundled up against the cold, and her eyes are shielded from the brilliant glare by her dark prescription sunglasses, which also protect her from unwanted recognition.

She’s about to leave, ready to go back to Mischa’s to relieve the babysitter, and must stop off on the way to find a present for Shura. The shell store is closed, so a toy store is located, and some animal noisemakers and blocks, chosen with great care, are selected instead. Jessie seems reflective, full of hopes and ideas, the wanderings of a woman enchanted by life’s possibilities.

“I’m beginning to think now that what counts most is clan, a sense of kinship,” she says. “I look at my grandparents, and they’ve been married for seventy years. It’s the most successful marriage I’ve ever seen, and not just the longevity.

“They’ve raised a family, worked together, had a home. They’ve been partners in the truest sense of the word. I don’t necessarily mean that’s what I want for the next seventy years, but we’ve been a close family. Clan is very important to me.

“And my grandparents have always been fifty-fifty. I don’t see many relationships that are fifty-fifty. They’re off-kilter, out of balance. Men and women don’t treat each other right – that’s what my feeling has become. 

“They’re basically strangers together. Few have a focal point or a common denominator. They don’t know the other person’s story, and therefore, what can they tell?” So, where does that leave everyone?


And with that, she laughs mightily, joyously. Jessica Lange understands. She won’t have to live her life over again. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Jessica Lange


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